St. Fleur leads colleagues on tour of Haiti

Children running around naked and washing themselves in puddles in dirt roads, outside homes made of aluminum siding and cinderblocks. Those were some of the images that remain stuck in state Rep. Marty Walsh’s mind after his five-day trip to Haiti last month. Walsh joined fellow state Reps. Marie St. Fleur and John Quinn, education officials from UMass-Boston and Westfield State and others on the trip to the Caribbean country.
“There’s blocks and miles and miles and miles and miles of poor people,” Walsh said after returning on Sunday. “The poverty was just so unbelievable.”
It was Walsh’s first trip and St. Fleur’s third trip.
“It’s a different kind of poverty,” caused by a lack of resources and infrastructure systems, St. Fleur said.
The country’s condition was juxtaposed with its natural beauty, highlighted by white sandy beaches and clear blue water and the potential for the country to become an agricultural heavyweight in sugar cane, coffee and mango.
Walsh said the country was a “diamond in the rough.”
“The potential for Haiti is off the chart,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”
The yearly budget for Haiti is $850 million a year. Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic, the country next door, generates $3.2 billion in tourism and has cornered the sugar cane market.
“Imagine what they could do with $3.2 billion,” Walsh said.
Roads need to be built to help develop businesses and more money needs to go to the schools, Walsh argued. The U.S., Venezuelan, European Union and Chinese governments have all poured money into the country, hit hard by a quartet of hurricanes that damaged around 900 of its schools.
“Haiti is in the process of trying to recreate its social and civic institutions,” St. Fleur said. “There has not been a coordination of efforts.”
And the money is going straight to Port-Au-Prince, the country’s capitol and seat of government.
“It’s not making its way into their communities,” Walsh said. The government must focus on growing the northern part of the country, he said.
The U.S. government has paid to have the roads paved, but many remain unfinished. “We need to put more mandates on where this money is spent,” he said.
The education system is similarly underdeveloped. “Most schools are unfinished,” Walsh said. “Kids are starving going to school.”
About $117 million is spent on 650,000 public school children. Contrast that with 56,000 students in Boston Public Schools, with a budget of $827 million.
Those students that do make it through the education system and go to college tend to not return to the country, he said.
“In spite of that, what people find is the perseverance of the people,” St. Fleur said.
Thanks to the offices of Reps. Barney Frank and Bill Delahunt, St. Fleur and the delegation sat down with Haitian ministers of commerce and education, who said they were working on a money-matching grant program to pull business out of an underground economy and get 500 businesses started. An additional 1,500 existing businesses would receive technical support.
UMass-Boston officials are helping to modernize and revamp the curriculum at the country’s business schools and build a “brain trust” of accountants and others with business degrees, St. Fleur said.
“It’s simply, they need opportunity,” Walsh said.
Future trips will focus on land use management and nonprofit management.
The U.S. government, 90 miles offshore, will have to take a “major role,” Walsh said, who added that he himself wants to get more involved as well. “I don’t feel the [Haitian] government can handle or wants to handle the situation.”
St. Fleur echoed Walsh’s call for stipulations to any aid that goes to the country.
St. Fleur’s next trip is in January, she said.
“We talk about being good neighbors to Turkey,” she said, referring to President Barack Obama’s weeklong trip to Europe. “We can be good neighbors in our own neighborhood.”